The life of Socrates provides one example of a someone who seeks a justification for his or her moral actions. Socrates tries to use REASON (rather than the values embedded in his culture) to determine whether an action is right or wrong. The dialogue called the "Crito" contains an image of Socrates trying to adopt what could be called THE MORAL POINT OF VIEW (as opposed to the point of view of one's religion or society).
After conviction, Socrates was sent to the jail where he was to be executed. At that time, a ship was sailing on a sacred mission and no executions were to be performed during its absence. Thus it happened that Socrates was confined to his cell for some 30 days.
Two days before the ship was to was to return, an old friend named Crito came to visit. Crito told Socrates that plans were in place to prepare for his escape and journey to another country.
Socrates points out that by escaping, he would be breaking the Laws. And so the Practical Question in this dialogue becomes: Ought I to break the Laws?
Crito says that "the opinion of the many" would judge us wrong if we didn't help you (and anyone in your position would agree that you ought to escape).
Socrates notes that SOME OPINION IS RIGHT AND SOME OPINION IS WRONG. It is not simply a matter of mere opinion, but of CORRECT OPINION. The authority in this case is the ACTUAL TRUTH of the matter. Socrates introduces a DISTINCTION BETWEEN TRUE OPINION AND FALSE OPINION. And the path to the latter is through ARGUMENT and REASON.
By appealing to the opinion of "the many," Crito seems to be committing the Ad Populum Fallacy (i.e., someting is right, true, etc., because the majority of the population says it is). Socrates seems to set up an Open Argument: "The Opinion of the Many says that escaping from jail is Right -- But is it Right?"
The First Premise (48b-49b): ONE OUGHT TO LIVE RIGHTLY.
The most important thing is "to live rightly" ("living well" and "living justly" are the same). Would it be Right to disobey the laws (to escape from jail without official discharge)?
[Arthur Adkins would argue that this premise represents a significant shift in Greek values (cf. Chapter I in Cavalier, et. al., Ethics in the History of Western Philosophy).]
The Second Premise (49b-49d): ONE OUGHT NEVER TO DO WRONG.
It is never Right to do Wrong. Therefore, it is not right to do wrong even when one is wronged (it is not right to injure even when one has been injured).
The Third Premise (49e-50a): ONE OUGHT TO KEEP AGREEMENTS.
The place of this premise is established through a "Dialogue with the Laws" (50b-54d).
Conclusion (54d-e):IT WOULD BE WRONG TO BREAK ("punish") THE LAWS.
Socrates' "answer" to the Practical Question, "Ought I to escape from jail?" is "NO." And he says this even though this deed will result in the loss of his life. (How does this latter point relate to the first premise?)
Note how his argument led to a result that was different from the "opinion of the many." And note also how Crito's own opinion changed during the course of the argument. What consequences might this have for "dialogues" concerning right and wrong?
In the Phaedo, Plato tells of a last dialogue by Socrates. At the end, Socrates drinks the hemlock.
Now the hour of sunset was near, for a good deal of time had passed while he was within. When he came out, he sat down with us again after his bath, but not much was said. Soon the jailer, who was the servant of the Eleven, entered and stood by him, saying: To you, Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me when, in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison-indeed, I am sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you are aware, and not I, are the guilty cause. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what must needs be; you know my errand. Then bursting into tears he turned away and went out.
Socrates looked at him and said: I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid. Then, turning to us, he said, How charming the man is: since I have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and at times he would talk to me, and was as good as could be to me, and now see how generously he sorrows for me. But we must do as he says, Crito; let the cup be brought, if the poison is prepared: if not, let the attendant prepare some.
Yet, said Crito, the sun is still upon the hilltops, and many a one has taken the draught late, and after the announcement has been made to him, he has eaten and drunk, and indulged in sensual delights; do not hasten then, there is still time.
Socrates said: Yes, Crito, and they of whom you speak are right in doing thus, for they think that they will gain by the delay; but I am right in not doing thus, for I do not think that I should gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should be sparing and saving a life which is already gone: I could only laugh at myself for this. Please then to do as I say, and not to refuse me.
Crito, when he heard this, made a sign to the servant, and the servant went in, and remained for some time, and then returned with the jailer carrying a cup of poison. Socrates said: You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed. The man answered: You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act. At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of color or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, Echecrates, as his manner was, took the cup and said: What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not? The man answered: We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough. I understand, he said: yet I may and must pray to the gods to prosper my journey from this to that other world-may this, then, which is my prayer, be granted to me. Then holding the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept over myself, for certainly I was not weeping over him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having lost such a companion. Nor was I the first, for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up and moved away, and I followed; and at that moment. Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: What is this strange outcry? he said. I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not offend in this way, for I have heard that a man should die in peace. Be quiet, then, and have patience.
When we heard that, we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard and asked him if he could feel; and he said, no; and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said (they were his last words)-he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.
Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, whom I may truly call the wisest, and justest, and best of all the men whom I have ever known.